The trailhead at the Eagle River Nature Center opens the pathway to spring.
As you set out down the trail, the sweet scent of fresh green pines baking in the sun is strong. It’s a unique alpine announcement that spring is in the air.
From the viewing decks over the beaver pond, you lean on the sun-warmed wooden railings, soaking up the rays that took over eight minutes to reach you. The pools of clear, quiet water have you dreaming of landing flies on their mysterious surface to lure out what may be waiting below. The grandeur of the north facing peaks locks you in. You feel your heart expand as winter is on the way out. Struck by the sight of pearl white snow fields holding strong in the bright sun, that old emotion of Auld Lang Syne floats in and you offer a truce on the air: winter, I guess you can stay, if you stay up there.
For months now, the vastness of this valley has eluded your grasp of comprehension, so you made a plan to survey it in, piece by piece until it starts to make sense. Scaled maps can’t convey the mystery until you’ve gotten into the heart of the valley and looked around. Even then, it just adds more to the mind boggling sense of terrain, time and distance. For now, just enjoy exploring and familiarizing the plot of land you’re on. Off to the side, there’s sort of a half-asleep trail obscured by dead grasses. Hopefully it will lead you to that something you are looking for.
The trail is a mix of soft ground, hard ground, mud and ice. You cross several wooden foot bridges over mountain marshes. These little rivieras along the way confirm you picked the right path. Each one of these flowing ecosystems is a special destination in their own right. Consider yourself to be one of the fortunate ones if in the silence of the flowing water, you’re present to hear a slab of overhanging ice crash the stillness of the alpenglow marsh.
This mushy paradise seems like a fine place to meet a moose. These peaceful bogs are nice, but you journeyed up here to pay homage to the river.
Deeper on down the trail, your only horizon is the north facing peaks. These peaks offer a sense of direction to the river, but they don’t offer much advice in terms of distance to it. Erring on the side of caution in this new territory, you push down the trail advancing past the bends and blind spots, keeping a running tally of how far you’ve traveled. You’ve yet to see any wildlife, but you’re expecting to. You’re in that sight-beyond-sight mode, keying in on giant tree burl anomalies hunched over like a chubby bear cub.
Alas there is a break in the trees. Through the forest blinds you see a hundred yards of white ribboned snow and ice capped by undulating gravel beds of stone washed grey. You’ve reached the Eagle River in her mountain habitat and she looks untamed and uncivilized, like she was raised by wolves. Her wild running hair glistens in the sun with knotted locks full of ice and sticks. It flows in a tangled weave, some breaking around islands of ice and making an uphill run until gravity catches on and corrects its path. She flows carefree through the change of seasons, just combing out her knots and burdocks for spring. This accessible section of meandering river bed will give you an hour of exploring and discovery.
If you’re lucky, you’ll score first tracks of moose prints in the black sand along the receding ice.
Over the four mile hike, there were no signs of bears (paw or poop), just yet. On the return trek, the dense mesh pines off the trailside seem impassable even to the eyet. The nature of this understory once again gives you a cosmic pause as to how vast this land is of impenetrable forest proportions.
In optimal draft metrics, they say an NFL quarterback’s outstretched hand is a minimum of nine inches across from thumb tip to pinky. On this Alaska-centric scale, the plot of land you surveyed today would barely register as a mote of dust on a hangnail. And yet that famous Ursus arctos of A. A. Milne once said, “Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”
Go out. Chart new territory no matter how small the distance or how close to civilization it may hug. Be the infinite explorer. And keep safe of course, that’s a big part of being cool in big country.
Nephi Tyler enjoys writing, fly fishing, classic movies, aviation history and all things outdoors. To reach Nephi, email: firstname.lastname@example.org